"When I was a little kid I made drawings of people and then drew wolf features on the other side of the paper so that when you held them up to the light they became werewolves," says Brian Mumford. The enormously talented, circuit-bending, acoustic guitar-plucking visionary of Tesla-damaged noise-folk who has played music under the name Dragging an Ox through Water since 2002—cites this wonderfully telling episode from his childhood as a precedent for his proclivities as a songwriter. As with his phantasmagorical preadolescent illustrations, Mumford makes songs that are fundamentally double-sided, created by the superimposition of two sets of forms.
He will begin a typical Dragging an Ox through Water song by summoning forth a gorgeous, finger-picked ostinato from his trebly, jury-rigged guitar, and a deep, gently warbling melody from his chest. Just as the comfortable woodsy contours of this sonic space begin to define themselves, they are violated by a barrage of feedback that Mumford fires from his pedal board, or a madcap, seemingly arrhythmic, fuzzed-out arpeggio he has covertly built by pinning down a handful of keys on one of his toy keyboards, passing the signal through his effects array. While at first the chaotic noise threatens to overwhelm the delicate folk song with which it is colliding, Mumford keeps the sonic maelstrom in play just long enough for the serendipitous synergy between the two aesthetics—one experimental, one traditional—to reveal itself, before he silences the squall and brings his song to a haunting, graceful end. While in lesser hands this kind of tinkering would senselessly ruin an otherwise terrific little pop song, Mumford miraculously manages to navigate the space between noise and folk by trusting equally in chance and craft. The result is profoundly unique and moving music, akin to what a Leonard Cohen/Smegma collaboration might sound like.
Dragging an Ox through Water is, in my opinion, absolutely one of the best bands going today. Live, Mumford is a mesmerizing performer, able to consistently win over diehard noise aficionados as well as pop purists with a single song. On record, his songs glow with a rich, homemade luster and benefit from an expanded, but never ostentatious, instrumentation, variously including recorder, drums, keyboards, vocal harmonies, and occasional whistling. Though we can look forward to a new Dragging an Ox through Water 12-inch in 2008, I still can't get enough of 2006's Rebukes! EP, which includes Mumford's intimate anthem "Aces," certainly among the best songs ever written in Portland.
Dragging an Ox through Water plays at KPSU venue the Modern Age on Friday, November 16, at 8 pm. The show is open to music lovers of all ages on a sliding scale of $3-5 and also features Please Step out of the Vehicle, Bodhi, and Mattress.